The last time I wrote about Robbie Basho, I described him as a trendsetter and innovator. That was the case throughout his career. However, some of the most innovative and groundbreaking music Robbie Basho released was at Vanguard Records. Robbie’s Vanguard Records debut was The Voice Of The Eagle, which was released to widespread critical acclaim. The Voice Of The Eagle found Robbie immersing himself in Native American culture. It was a truly ambitious album.
Robbie’s raison d’être on The Voice Of The Eagle seemed to be broaden the minds of music lovers. He wanted them to open their ears to musical possibilities. The same can be said of the followup to The Voice Of The Eagle, Zarthus, which was recently rereleased by Vanguard Masters, an imprint of Ace Records. Zarthus saw a change in direction from Robbie Basho.
Whereas The Voice Of The Eagle saw Robbie immerse himself in the culture of Native American culture, Zarthus saw Robbie change direction. He’d previously been through a Japanese and Indian period. The cultures of Japan and India had influenced Robbie’s music. Now, Robbie was about to enter his Persian period.
Zarthius was a tapestry of Persian, Arabic and Western music. The result was what Robbie Basho described as a “Fabric D’Amour to cover the bare manekin of modern times.” Released in 1973, Zarthus was ambitious, innovative and groundbreaking. Here was music very different to much or the music being released during 1973. No wonder. Robbie Basho was a trendsetter and had been throughout his career. This began in 1962, when Robbie first heard Ravi Shankar.
Before hearing Ravi Shankar, Robbie had already embraced Asian culture. This began back in 1959, when the then nineteen year old Daniel Robinson Jr, bought his first guitar. Soon, Robbie immersed himself in Asian culture. So much so, that he changed his name to Robbie Basho, in honour of the Japanese poet Matsuo Bashō. This was the beginning of the transformation of Daniel Robinson Jr, from student to Robbie Basho, groundbreaking musician who released a string of albums between 1965 and 1985. This included 1972s The Voice Of An Eagle, which was recently rereleased on Vanguard Masters, a subsidiary of Ace Records. It demonstrates why Robbie Basho is remembered as a groundbreaking musician. Robbie’s story began in Baltimore in 1940.
Tragically, Daniel Robinson Jr, was orphaned at an early age. He was then adopted by the Robinson family and attended school in Baltimore. At high school, he sang in the middle and high school choirs. Daniel also played the euphonium in his high school band. So, for some people, it wasn’t a surprise that Daniel Robinson Jr, would go on to enjoy a career as a musician. His career began at the University of Maryland.
Daniel headed of to the University of Maryland in 1958. It was there that he met John Fahey, Ed Denson and Max Ochs. They were all aspiring guitarists. Their interest rubbed off on Daniel. However, he didn’t have a guitar. Not until he met a sailor who’d just returned from Mexico.
Daniel was working his way through college by working in a club. One night, he met a sailor who’d just returned from Mexico. The sailer had an antique Mexican 12-string guitar. He offered to sell it to Daniel. The only problem was that he wanted $200 for it. Robbie however, bought the guitar for $200. However, buying the guitar was just the start of a new chapter in Daniel’s life.
With his new guitar, Daniel set about pushing the guitar to his limits. Daniel also immersed himself in Asian culture. So much so, that he changed his name to Robbie Basho, in honour of the Japanese poet Matsuo Bashō. This was the just the first change in Robbie’s life and career.
Having started off playing country blues, with John Fahey, Ed Denson and Max Ochs, that didn’t seem to satisfy Robbie. So he dipped into bluegrass, classical, oriental and free jazz. Then came the moment that changed Daniel’s life. He heard Ravi Shankar.
Sitting in the dark, listening to Ravi Shankar, Daniel found music he could relate to. This was fortuitous. Many artists who played folk music found they weren’t able to express themselves. Having listening to Ravi, Daniel realised he could. There were a whole host of tunings he hadn’t yet discovered. Soon, Daniel was studying with Ali Akbar Khan, who was a renowned sarod virtuoso. Ali helped popularise Indian music within the West. So, did Robbie Basho.
Robbie pioneered and popularised a whole host of open and exotic tunings. He also developed his coded Doctrine of Mood and Colour For 6 and 12-String Guitar. This was all part of Robbie efforts to transform the steel-string acoustic guitar into a concert instrument. That took the best part of ten years. By then, Robbie’s recording career was well underway.
After a spell spent travelling, Robbie found himself in Berkeley. There was a thriving folk scene in Berkeley. This played its part in the revival of Takoma Records, who Robbie would release Robbie’s solo album.
This was 1965s The Seal Of The Blue Lotus. Robbie’s sophomore album was 1966s The Grail and The Lotus. These two albums were innovative and much more adventurous than much of the folk music being released back then. Robbie was determined to push musical boundaries. He succeeded, releasing The Falconer’s Arm I, The Falconer’s Arm II and Basho Sings in 1967. That year, Robbie contributed The Thousand Incarnations Of The Rose to the compilation Contemporary Guitar – Spring ’67. 1967, proved to be the most fruitful year of Robbie’s career.
It wasn’t until a new decade dawned that Robbie Basho released another album. This was 1970s Venus In Cancer, which was released on Blue Thumb Records. Robbie last album for Takoma Records was released in 1971. That was Song Of The Stallion. After that, Robbie signed to another prestigious label, Vanguard Records, where he released two albums.
The first of the two albums Robbie released on Vanguard Records, was The Voice Of The Eagle. It featured eight tracks penned by Robbie. He played 6 and 12-string guitar and sang led vocals. Ramnad Raghavan was a guest artist. He played the mrdangam drums, which are an Indian log drum. Producing The Voice Of The Eagle, was Jack Mothrop. Robbie dedicated The Voice Of The Eagle to the Indian American and Avatar Meher Baba an Indian spiritual master, who many people believed, was God in human form. The Voice Of The Eagle was released in 1972.
The Voice Of The Eagle found Robbie immersing himself in Native American culture. It was a truly ambitious album. Sadly, The Voice Of The Eagle was a commercial failure. It passed most people by. Looking back, maybe the problem was, people didn’t understand what was one of Robbie Basho’s most ambitious and innovative albums. However, Robbie wasn’t going to give up. Instead he returned with another album of pioneering music Zarthus.
For Zarthus, Robbie penned six tracks, Zarthus,Khoda E Gule Abe, Mehera, Khalil Gibran, Bride Divine and Rhapsody In Druz. Robbie played 6 and 12-string guitar and sang led vocals. Ramnad Raghavan was a guest artist. He played the mrdangam drums, which are an Indian log drum. Producing Zarthus, was Jack Mothrop. Would Zarthus, which saw Robbie Basho change direction prove a commercial success?
Sadly, that wasn’t the case. Just like The Voice Of The Eagle, Zarthus passed music lovers by. Critics appreciated Zarthus. It was well received upon its release. They recognised the quality of the music, and that Robbie was trying create music that was groundbreaking. The problem was, just like with The Voice Of The Eagle, Robbie Basho was way ahead of his time. He was a visionary, whose music was under-appreciated upon its release. It was only later, that Robbie Basho was recognised as a musical pioneer. By then, he was dead. Zarthus proved to one of the finest albums of Robbie’s career. You’ll realise why, when I tell you about Zarthus.
Zarthus opens with the title track. Just a deliberate thoughtful, crystalline guitar opens the track. Deliberately, Robbie strums, choosing notes with care. Then a tender, earnest half-spoken vocal enters. When it departs, frantically, Robbie strums his guitar. The drama grows and builds. Although it’s just one man and his guitar, the music has a cinematic quality. Its also dramatic and emotive as it heads towards its crescendo.
Khoda E Gule Abe (The Lord Of The Blue Rose) sees Robbie interpret a Persian raga. At the start, it’s just his guitar. His hands flit up and down the fretboard, as he strums and plucks. Before long, the raga is underpinned by tablas. Music flows through Robbie. It’s as if he’s only an outlet for the music. The music is mesmeric, hypnotic and spiritual. Later, it becomes urgent and dramatic. It draws you in. You’re captivated by it. This is ordinary music. Instead, it ’s music designed to cleanse and sooth your weary soul. As the final notes play, you feel better for having allowed the music into your life and soul.
Mehera (Persian For Mary) is another track with a spiritual quality. That’s apparent from the get-go. Robbie’s vocal is earnest and impassioned. He accompanies himself on the piano. The lone piano speaks a thousand words. It’s the perfect foil for Robbie’s vocal, becoming yin to his yang. Through Robbie the music flows. He’s a vessel for this cathartic soul cleansing vocal. When Robbie’s vocal departs, the piano takes centre-stage. Flamboyant flourishes of piano are unleashed. Their ethereal beauty seems a fitting replacement for Robbie, during this hymnal to his “beloved higher mind.”
Straight away, the understated and beautiful Khalil Gibran, takes on a spiritual quality. That’s not surprising, given the track seems to have been inspired by the Lord’s Prayer. Then there’s Robbie’s earnest, heartfelt vocal. It’s delivered with the utmost sincerity. Accompanying his is gently plucked and strummed guitar. Nothing else is needed. That would be overkill. Just Robbie and his trusty guitar breath life, beauty and spiritually into this devotional.
Robbie’s urgently strummed guitar opens Bride Divine. Then his quivering vocal enters. By delivering his vocal this way, his voice becomes akin to another instrument. It veers between a jazzy scat and even free jazz. It quivers, shivers and shimmers. This allows Robbie to inject drama, emotion, passion and sincerity into the lyrics. The effect this has, is to give the song joyous, celebratory sound that forty years later, is still as powerful and enchanting.
Closing Zarthus, is Rhapsody In Druz, where we embark on what Robbie described as ” a spiritual journey.” A series of short stories makeup Rhapsody In Druz. They’ve one commonality love. Originally, the song took up all of the second side of Zarthus. It’s a near twenty minute opus. Robbie’s shimmering, sometimes dramatic piano opens the track. The music cascades in waves. It’s truly captivating and beautiful. You lose yourself in the music. It washes over you, cleansing your soul. Suddenly, everything seems right. After three minutes, the tempo drops and Robbie’s vocal enters. He mixes drama, emotion and hope. When his vocal drops out, it’s just the piano. This becomes a familiar pattern. Robbie and his piano toy with your emotions, before the piano takes centre-stage. A series of melodic masterclass unfolds. You’re taken on a journey by Robbie and his piano during what’s one of the most ambitious, innovative and adventuresome pieces of music Robbie ever recorded.
Rhapsody In Druz seems a fitting way not just to close Zarthus, but Robbie Basho’s time at Vanguard Records. They allowed Robbie to follow his heart and release music that was ambitious, groundbreaking and innovative. There seems to be no thought to how successful Zarthus would be.
Vanguard Records didn’t seem to think like that. It was as if music mattered more than money. Music was art and you couldn’t put a price on art. Especially avant garde, experimental and innovative art. In some ways, Vanguard Records are to be applauded. They afforded their artists complete artistic freedom. There was never any pressure for the artist to try to release music that was commercial. So, Robbie Basho was able to release music he’d never had the opportunity to release on a major label. However, there was a downside.
The problem with signing to a small, independent label is they don’t have the budget to promote an album. Especially a niche album like Zarthus. It had to be promoted, and promoted well. It was all about marketing the music to right audience. There was, after all, a market for the music on Zarthus. People’s musical tastes had been much more eclectic since the late-sixties. However, there was a problem, reaching this market.
Just like The Voice Of An Eagle, Zarthus seemed to passed many people by. Either that, or they didn’t understand the music. Then there was the fact that music had moved on. Folk and jazz were no longer as popular. Rock was King. Whether it was Krautrock, prog rock or classic rock, rock ruled the roost. Granted soul was making inroads, but only briefly. Commercially, Zarthus was the wrong album at the wrong time.
Artistically, Zarthus is a lost classic. Sadly, Zarthus wasn’t appreciated on its release in 1974. Despite this, Zarthus has stood the test of time. A timeless album, full of captivating, enchanting, ethereal and mesmeric music, Zarthus also has a spiritual quality. It’s designed to cleanse and soothe the weary soul. This is music to immerse yourself in, and let it wash over you. Zarthus is also ambitious, innovative and groundbreaking music. Here was music very different to much or the music being released during 1974. No wonder. Robbie Basho was a trendsetter and would continue to be the rest of his career.
Throughout the rest of his career, Robbie Basho continued to innovate and plough his own musical furrow. Sadly, commercial success eluded Robbie. That’s a great shame, because Robbie Basho was determined to create ambitious and groundbreaking music. Ironically, given his talent as a musician, singer and songwriter, Robbie could’ve enjoyed commercial success and critical acclaim.
That would’ve meant compromising what he believed in. Robbie wasn’t willing to go down the road of James Taylor and Jackson Browne. No. He was determined to release music he believed in. You can’t help but admire Robbie for sticking to his principles. That was the case throughout his twenty-year recording career. Sadly, commercial success and critical acclaim eluded Robbie Basho.
Despite commercial success and critical acclaim eluding Robbie Basho, he released a string of groundbreaking albums. Two of Robbie Basho’s best albums were The Voice Of An Eagle and Zarthus which was recently rereleased by Vanguard Masters, an imprint of Ace Records. Zarthus finds the founding father of the American raga at his innovative best, and is a spiritual journey everyone should embark upon once in their life.